With the launch of Disney+ and Apple TV+ in November, the streaming wars have officially begun. For television itself, it’s a boon. Shows like Disney’s The Mandalorian and Amazon’s upcoming Lord of the Rings prequel cost as much and look as slick as their film counterparts. Movie stars like Jennifer Aniston (Apple’s The Morning Show) and auteurs like Martin Scorsese (Netflix’s The Irishman) are flocking to these services to get in on the action (and, in Scorsese’s case, the millions needed for high-tech CGI de-aging to tell the kind of story he wanted to tell).
But for the consumer, the options can seem overwhelming — and expensive. Years ago, Netflix compelled customers to cut the cord and save big on their monthly cable bills. But Netflix is no longer a one-stop-shop for your favorite content. Studios and networks are scrambling to take back their original content for their own streaming services, leading to battles over old stalwarts like Friends, which HBO just paid $425 million to nab from Netflix for its own forthcoming streaming service, HBO Max.
That means that in order to get access to your favorite shows and movies, old and new, you’re likely going to have to mix-and-match various services. And with so much new content on the way, it’s hard to know what’s worth paying for.
The truth is, each service has something to offer, and its value to you as a customer depends on your taste and habits. We’ve broken down the major new and existing streaming services by cost, pros and cons, ideal audiences and what look to be the most promising or popular original shows and movies on each one.
$6.99 per month or $70 per year
Marvel, Star Wars, Pixar and classic Disney movies all in one place — plus The Simpsons
Disney rules pop culture. They own Marvel, Star Wars and Pixar. By the end of the year they will likely have produced (or, in the case of Spidey, co-produced) eight of the 10 top-grossing films of 2019 — Avengers: Endgame, The Lion King, Toy Story 4, Spider-Man: Far From Home, Captain Marvel, Aladdin and, barring disaster, Frozen 2 and Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker. Disney+ is the only place you will be able to stream any of those films or Disney’s gigantic back catalogue of films without paying a rental or purchasing fee.
These movies will be supplemented with spinoffs and remakes like the Toy Story 4-inspired series Forky Asks a Question and the Lady and the Tramp Iive-action movie. Oh, and Disney also acquired the rights to The Simpsons, so Disney+ will be the only place you can stream all those episodes.
The Marvel and Star Wars cinematic universes expand into TV
Yes, there were Netflix Marvel shows before. But they didn’t tie into the main Marvel Cinematic Universe. The eight Marvel shows planned for Disney+ will, and they will even star characters like Loki and The Winter Soldier. They are, officially, canon.
Additionally, Disney+ will feature the first live-action Star Wars TV shows: The Mandalorian (which will premiere when the service launches in November), a Rogue One prequel and an Obi-Wan Kenobi series. The trailer for the Mandalorian looks as impressive (and expensive) as any Star Wars movie.
You can get Hulu, ESPN+, and Disney+ in a bundle
For $12.99 per month, viewers can get all of these services. Considering the fact that you’re getting Hulu and some sports, people who buy this bundle could consider completely cutting the cord.
No non-Disney content
Unlike Netflix or Amazon, Disney does not plan to license content from other studios to put on its streaming service, at least for now. However, the Hulu bundle will allow Disney+ fans wider access to shows. Considering how many movies Disney is making these days, this is less of a content problem than just a cultural one: Do we really want one corporation making all the lion’s share of our content?
Slow rollout of new shows
Disney has promised a lot of new series, from Star Wars spinoffs to sequels to classic Disney channel shows like Lizzie McGuire and High School Musical. But those are mostly coming in 2020 or later. On day one, The Mandalorian will be the major draw, with Forky Asks a Question, High School Musical: The Musical: The Series (yes, that’s the real name) and The World According to Jeff Goldblum as bonus material.
What To Watch
Jon Favreau (Iron Man, The Lion King) took a crack at the Star Wars universe with this much-hyped series starring Game of Thrones actor Pedro Pascal as a gunslinger operating at the edges of the universe. If you are even a casual Star Wars fan, this will be the major draw of Disney+ when it launches.
Forky Asks a Question
The wonderfully weird premise of WandaVision suggests that the Marvel shows can take the superhero genre in new, unexpected directions. Details on the show are vague, but it will involve Wanda (a.k.a. Scarlet Witch) getting stuck in a 1950s-style, Dick Van Dyke-inspired TV show, probably while trying to process the death of her superhero boyfriend, Vision. The show promises to mix classic sitcom bits with classic Marvel action, and the cast will include Randall Park and the always wonderful Kathryn Hahn. It sounds experimental and not for everyone, but that’s exactly what the Disney+ platform should be for.
The person who feels young at heart — or is, actually, young
For a long time Disney kept a lot of its movies “in the vault,” only available to purchase or stream every so often. That ends with Disney’s streaming service where, eventually, the entire Disney catalogue will become available. For anyone with a kid obsessed with The Lion King or playing “Let It Go” on a loop, subscribing is a no-brainer.
It will also be the only place to access any of the Marvel Studios superhero films or shows or the Star Wars movies or shows, which again makes Disney+ a must-have for many moviegoing Americans.
$4.99 per month
Quality over quantity
Netflix has, historically speaking, prioritized quantity over quality (though there is, to be sure, plenty of quality to be found there too). They’ve developed loads of content in every genre — reality, romance, regal dramas — to see what sticks. Apple TV+, by contrast, seems to be taking a more curated approach to streaming. It has a more limited number of shows, but many of them have major names attached: Oprah, Jennifer Aniston, J.J. Abrams, etc.
It remains to be seen whether paying top dollar for the most famous creators in Hollywood will result in superior content, but that’s certainly their hope. The Morning Show, at the very least, looks like a well-made drama with a stacked cast that could easily have aired on HBO.
One year subscription free for Apple users
If you own an Apple iPhone, iPad, Mac or Apple TV — which makes you one of about 1 billion people across the world — you get a year’s subscription for free. So there’s very little risk involved here. Even for people who need to subscribe, the cost is just $4.99 per month, far less than Netflix’s cheapest option of $9 per month.
A smaller library
Apple TV+ doesn’t have nearly as robust a library as Netflix, which has been producing original shows and movies for years, or even Disney+, which can draw from its own massive back catalogue. Nor does it plan to license other studios’ content as Netflix and Amazon do. So you’ll have to decide whether it feels worthwhile to pay for only a handful of shows, not all of which you will love.
An incomplete platform
Part of Apple’s vision for Apple TV+ has been to bring all your cable subscription and streaming services together on one platform. You can search for a Hulu show like Handmaid’s Tale or an Amazon series like Marvelous Mrs. Maisel or the college basketball you want to watch on ESPN all through one Apple TV+ app. It’s a good idea in theory, if every streaming service were to sign on.
But, perhaps unsurprisingly, Apple has yet to convince Netflix and a few others to integrate with their platform, which is a major blow to the all-in-one vision. Netflix loyalists will have to log onto another app to see those shows. Right now, something like Roku has a similar search feature across all the apps you own, which functionally works better than the Apple TV+ limited platform will.
What To Watch
The Morning Show
This is the big prestige play by Apple TV+. It takes on a timely topic — a morning show left reeling after one of its cohosts is accused of sexual misconduct. Jennifer Aniston, Reese Witherspoon and Steve Carell all star in a drama that promises to delve into the complicated fallout.
This biographical series very loosely based on the life of writer Emily Dickinson has both The Favourite and Riverdale vibes (see: Emily Dickinson juking in Victorian garb and casting lustful looks at various men and women). Hailee Steinfeld stars, and Apple TV+ has already renewed it for a second season.
For All Mankind
People love space — so much so that there seems to be a major space movie, and sometimes more, every year. (Counting back from 2019: Ad Astra, First Man, Alien: Covenant, Hidden Figures, The Martian, Interstellar, Gravity, etc.) In that vain, Apple is pushing a Joel Kinnaman starrer that considers how the space race would have changed if the Soviet Union had put a man on the moon first.
The prestige TV lover
If you need to be part of the conversation every time the latest episode of Big Little Lies or Atlanta drops, you’re probably going to want to check out Apple TV+. The Morning Show’s trailer alone probably secured it a spot at the Emmys.
HBO Max (April 2020)
A smattering of great movies and TV shows, from Wonder Woman to Friends
Because HBO is owned by WarnerMedia, subscribers will have access to content produced by its various subsidiaries, including Warner Bros., CNN, Cartoon Network, TBS and New Line Cinemas. In addition to HBO fare like The Sopranos and Game of Thrones, major draws will include the DC superhero movies like Wonder Woman, studio films like Crazy Rich Asians and Turner Classic movies like The Wizard of Oz.
HBO Max also invested as much or more in acquiring old TV series. They paid $425 million to carry Friends for five years. That may sound like an absurd amount of money to pay for a 25-year-old show, but Friends earned a rabid, new, younger audience when it streamed on Netflix over the past several years. When the show’s contract with Netflix was up, streaming services entered a bidding war for the sitcom.
For kids, they’ve acquired Sesame Street and Looney Toons.
HBO convinced Hayao Miyazaki to let them stream Studio Ghibli films for the first time ever
HBO Max also announced an exclusive with Studio Ghibli. For years, legendary filmmaker Hayao Miyazaki refused to put the studio’s films, including Spirited Away, My Neighbor Totoro and Ponyo, onto streaming services. Fans had to buy the DVDs or take them out from their local libraries. But in October, HBO Max announced they’d secured the rights to stream the movies for the first time ever — a major get considering Disney once had a contract with Studio Ghibli to distribute their DVDs.
New shows with big creators, including Reese Witherspoon, Joss Whedon and Ellen DeGeneres
HBO Max has cut deals with Reese Witherspoon’s production company to produce several projects for them. Joss Whedon of Buffy and Avengers fame is making his next big sci-fi series for the streaming service. And Ellen DeGeneres will produce several reality shows for the service as HBO ventures into the reality TV space.
It may be more expensive than competitors
HBO is reportedly considering charging $16 or $17 per month for the service, which is significantly higher than Netflix, Disney+, Apple+ or several other streaming services. Then again, HBO has always been expensive.
HBO’s levels of access can be confusing
HBO already has two streaming services: HBO Go, a streaming service that you automatically have access to if you pay for HBO in your cable bill, and HBO Now, a streaming service for those who have unplugged from cable and thus don’t automatically qualify for HBO Go. HBO Go and HBO Now allow you to access any show that’s ever aired on HBO, from Sex and the City to Succession.
HBO Max will have all that HBO content plus a bunch of extra TV shows and movies from WarnerMedia and other sources.
What To Watch
Hiro Murai is one of the most interesting directors working in TV right now: He’s directed many episodes of Atlanta and the music video for Donald Glover’s “This Is America.” He’s also directed episodes of Barry and Legion. Next, he’ll apply his unique aesthetic to an adaptation of Station Eleven, the bestselling post-apocalyptic novel by Emily St. John Mandel. Patrick Somerville (The Leftovers, Maniac) will write.
Anna Kendrick (Pitch Perfect) and Paul Feig (Bridesmaids) reteam after last year’s A Simple Favor. This time, they are co-producing a comedic anthology series which will follow a different character trying to find love each season, with Kendrick starring in the first season and other big names to follow.
Jordan Peele and J.J. Abrams are bringing their mastery of horror and twists, respectively, to HBO. They will co-executive produce a series based on the novel of the same name by Matt Ruff. The book centers on a man who embarks on a road trip across Jim Crow-era America to search for his missing father but encounters racist monsters along the way, inspired by those created by the influential but deeply controversial writer, H.P. Lovecraft.
The TV binger
The new chief of HBO recently suggested that the premium cable channel needed to become more like Netflix. HBO has historically prided itself on a curated catalogue of prestige shows. And that strategy has helped them capture the cultural conversation from week to week. This year alone, Game of Thrones, Barry, Big Little Lies and Succession all dominated water-cooler chatter the Monday mornings after their respective episodes aired, and Watchmen, the most recent of those to premiere, is poised to do the same.
It’s unclear whether HBO can strike a happy medium between quality and quantity as it expands. But the HBO Max rollout suggests that they might succeed in supplementing their prestige fare with more digestable, bingeable shows like Friends or the DC superhero shows on their streaming service. If you consume both types of TV, you’re probably a candidate for HBO Max.
$9 to $16 per month, depending on your plan
You probably already have Netflix
Let’s be real, you probably are already paying for Netflix. And there are plenty of reasons to stay. You need to know whether the next season of Stranger Things will venture to the Soviet union or see how The Crown handles the Princess Diana years or are hoping that maybe El Camino isn’t the only Breaking Bad movie that will find its way to the streaming service. You’re already hooked, and it’s going to take a really compelling bundle of shows to un-hook you.
The library is massive
Even if Netflix were to lose all of its licensed content, the company has prepared by building a huge catalogue of original shows and movies. Plus, now that they’ve poached just about every big name in TV from the floundering networks, including Ryan Murphy and Shonda Rhimes, they’ve essentially replaced the networks as the key provider of television content.
The best bang for your buck
Even if Apple and Disney price themselves lower than Netflix, Netflix’s vast library means you’re probably paying less per hour of content watched than on any other platform.
Netflix is losing a lot of its licensed content
Say so long to Friends and literally any movie ever made by Disney, including Marvel and Star Wars flicks. As networks and studios begin to offer their own streaming services, they are taking back content from Netflix, which once was the single go-to place to find most movies and TV shows you wanted to watch.
Netflix will try to make up the difference with intriguing original content, but sometimes you just want to binge The Office for the 100th time, and Netflix is losing that show at the end of 2020.
Netflix is more expensive than a lot of its competitors — for now
Netflix is the original streaming service and the biggest. As such, it has a target on its back. In hopes of undermining Netflix and stealing subscribers, Apple TV+ and Disney+ are pricing themselves lower than Netflix’s monthly rate. It doesn’t help that Netflix recently raised its subscription fees.
Given how much Apple and Disney are spending on their respective services, that state of affairs can’t necessarily last forever. But it can last long enough to make Netflix bleed. Unlike Apple, which makes computers and phones, or Disney, which makes theme parks and merchandise, Netflix doesn’t have another revenue stream to fall back on.
In the beginning, consumers may benefit from the race to become the most cost-effective streaming service possible. But, as with cable before it, the few remaining providers may ultimately wind up jacking up their prices.
What To Watch
Netflix is throwing its hat into the Oscar race once again, this time with a movie that reunites Martin Scorsese with Robert De Niro and Joe Pesci and marks his first time collaborating with Al Pacino. In the story about the hitman (De Niro) who allegedly killed Jimmy Hoffa (Pacino), Scorsese employs de-aging technology to show the evolution of his characters from the 1950s onward.
In another Oscar hopeful, filmmaker Noah Baumbach (Francis Ha, Mistress America) offers a snapshot of a marriage falling apart. Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson star in the film, which received rave reviews at film festivals.
The Witcher will be Netflix’s attempt to fill the Game of Thrones-sized hole in your heart. The fantasy series about a man who fights mythical creatures stars none other than Henry Cavill, Superman himself. The show will have a built-in audience, as it’s based on a popular series of books and video games.
The person with super-specific tastes
Has anyone else noticed that Netflix categories are getting weirdly specific? “Cerebral Scandinavian Movies”? “Witty Workplace TV Shows”? The point is that there is a movie or TV show for everyone on this platform, no matter your taste. It was scientifically engineered to appeal to you. Will it be the best content on offer in the category you love? Sometimes yes, sometimes no. But you know it will be there.
And if you’re an omnivore? There’s still no better place to binge.
$5.99 or $11.99 per month, depending on your plan
Watch episodes that aired on networks the next day
Missed last night’s episode of Black-ish or Riverdale or Law & Order: SVU or This Is Us? A lot of network TV series can be found the very next day on Hulu. The platform is still the easiest way to keep up with network TV if you can’t wait for the entire season to drop on Netflix or some other streaming service in a few months. It’s the easiest alternative to a DVR.
Disney acquired full control of Hulu earlier this year. That likely means that shows made by ABC and Fox (both of which Disney now owns) will stay on the platform, including series like Grey’s Anatomy and New Girl, even if other networks eventually yank theirs.
You can watch live TV on Hulu
For those looking to totally cut the cord — or who don’t want to pay for services that stream live TV like Sling or Playstation Vue — you can watch 60 channels of live television on Hulu.
Hulu ads are a big deterrent
Subscribers with Hulu’s ad-free plan pay twice as much per month as customers who watch limited ads on Hulu. When just about every other streaming service doesn’t include ads, that’s just not worth the cost for bingers. Anecdotally speaking, it’s particularly irritating to try to binge-watch a show and be forced to watch the same rotation of three ads over and over again.
Small original content library
Hulu doesn’t make as many original TV shows as Netflix. And none of its series have quite dominated the cultural conversation. Handmaid’s Tale was a hit its first season and snagged some awards, but viewers fell off as the show got darker and darker.
Disney, however, has promised to invest more in Hulu’s original content.
Hulu could lose a lot of its licensed content
Increasingly, networks like CBS and NBC are building their own streaming service platforms to compete with Netflix. Right now, Hulu has rights to shows like 30 Rock and This Is Us that it will lose if NBC decides to take those shows back and house them exclusively on their own service. Unlike Netflix, Hulu has failed to build a solid stable of original content to keep customers returning even once those network shows are gone.
What To Watch
Little Fires Everywhere
Reese Witherspoon has made a reputation for herself in Hollywood by optioning particularly buzzy books from female authors to bring to the screen. Her next adaptation will be Little Fires Everywhere, which she will co-produce with Kerry Washington, who will also star.) The bestselling novel takes place in author Celeste Ng’s hometown of Shaker Heights, Ohio, where simmering racial tensions ignite over a debate about an adopted baby.
Hulu and the BBC snatched up the rights to Sally Rooney’s buzzy novel — about a modern, messed-up romance between two Irish teens — before it was even published this year. Lenny Abrahamson, who directed the acclaimed adaptation of the book Room, is helming the project and has already begun filming.
Zoe Kravitz will star in a gender-flipped reboot of the Nick Hornby novel-turned-movie that starred John Cusack (and her mom, Lisa Bonet). Kravitz, who was recently named as the new Catwoman in the Robert Pattison-led Batman movie, will play a record store owner obsessed with pop culture who tries to understand her spotty track record with love by revisiting her exes.
Those who yearn for the TV of yesteryear but don’t want to pay a huge cable bill
If you want to keep up with a lot of weekly shows, but you also want to unplug and save yourself the burden of paying a massive cable bill and tons of streaming service bills, Hulu is probably your best bet. You can catch your favorite shows the next day and even pay a decent price to do so if you don’t mind muting the ads.
Amazon Prime Video
Free with Amazon Prime membership or $12.99 per month or $119 per year
If you already pay for Amazon Prime it’s included at no additional cost
Addicted to 1-day delivery of paper towels and soap? Bad news for the environment, good news for you: your Amazon obsession comes with the perk of some good TV shows and movies.
A lot of award-winning original content
Like Netflix, Amazon has been gunning for Emmys and Oscars. Unlike Netflix, it has tried to do so without the glut. There are fewer original shows, but several of them, including Fleabag, The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel and A Very English Scandal, are quite good and do win Emmys.
Their movie taste has proven impressive too: In the last several years, the studio has released critically acclaimed films like Manchester by the Sea, The Big Sick, The Handmaiden, Paterson, Logan Lucky, Cold War, I Am Not Your Negro and The Lost City of Z in theaters before moving them exclusively to their streaming platform. Coming up soon is The Report, starring Adam Driver and Annette Bening, about the investigation into the CIA’s use of torture on suspected terrorists after 9/11.
A lot of great non-original content that you can rent, buy or even stream for free
Amazon has cut deals with most major studios to allow customers to rent or buy movies and TV shows on the Amazon platform. It also streams a lot of movies and TV for free, so it’s always worth checking whether the show you want to watch happens to be sitting there ready to binge.
If you don’t have Prime, it may not be worth the price
The small library means that the monthly price tag may be a little steep for those who don’t already subscribe to Amazon Prime.
You may have to wait awhile to see its original movies on streaming
Netflix has battled movie theaters for the right to drop its original movies on the streaming services just a few short weeks after they premiere in theaters. Amazon has tended to play by the movie theaters’ traditional rules and wait a longer period of time between when its films premiere in theaters and when they make their way, months later, to Amazon’s platform. Amazon gets a bigger box office, but you’ll have to wait longer to watch the movie for free.
This may be starting to shift, however: The Report, for example, will stream on Nov. 29, two weeks after its theatrical release on Nov. 15.
What To Watch
Shi’a LeBeouf wrote a movie about his childhood relationship with his father during the son’s time in a court-ordered rehabilitation facility. Considering that this is an actor who once sat through a marathon-viewing of his own films, it’s fair to say he has enmeshed himself in his own history. LeBeouf stars as his own father, and Lucas Hedges plays LeBeouf. The film was received positively out of the Sundance Film Festival and is poised to make an awards-season run.
Moonlight director Barry Jenkins will be helming this much-anticipated adaptation of the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by Colson Whitehead. Whitehead imagines an antebellum South in which the underground railroad actually exists as a hidden railroad winding through America. His protagonist Cora eventually boards the train and finds herself stopping off at various towns.
Lord of the Rings prequel series
Amazon hasn’t set a release date on this yet, but it’s worth highlighting because the company reportedly spent half a billion dollars just to acquire the rights to J.R.R. Tolkein’s masterwork before they even started filming the show.
They won’t be adapting the Lord of the Rings books but rather creating a prequel series starring Will Poulter (Black Mirror, Midsommar). Amazon has already committed to at least five seasons of the show: This is their Game of Thrones-level play.
Anyone who already depends on Amazon for every other aspect of their lives
There are many drawbacks to Amazon’s strategy of gobbling up one industry after another. But while you’re mulling over your moral qualms as a subscriber, you can stream all of the brilliantly subversive Fleabag at no additional cost. Just binge it before the drones come for us all.
AMC Theaters On Demand
Films will cost about $3 to $5.99 to rent and $9.99 to $19.99 to buy
AMC can suggest movies you might like
AMC Theaters on Demand, which launched in October, is a service available to members of AMC Stubs, a free program available to anyone who frequents an AMC movie theater. Like Netflix, AMC can use data about what you’ve watched (previously purchased movie tickets) to suggest other movies you might want to watch on the streaming service. You saw John Wick this summer? Here’s a whole catalogue of action movies you can rent.
AMC can suggest movies you might like
On the other hand, AMC tracking your movie ticket data may be unsettling for some customers wary of companies analyzing their habits. For example, an executive at AMC told the New York Times that the 6 million people who bought tickets to The Lion King this summer got a personalized message in October from AMC that that movie had become available on demand. Some might be turned off by a company they already paid to see a movie suggesting they pay to watch that same movie again, a few months later.
Amazon and iTunes already do this better
You can already rent or buy most movies on either Amazon or iTunes — and even download them to watch offline. Their platforms have existed for a long time and are better-designed. If you already have a Prime Account, you might as well see what movies are free to stream on Prime and save some money and then rent the ones that aren’t. If you have an Apple TV, then it’s simply easier to pull up movies on your Apple TV and rent them through iTunes.
What To Watch
A lot of new movies, and some old ones
AMC has cut deals with several major studios to rent out or sell recently released films and some in the back catalogue, like Mean Girls. But don’t go looking for content that’s too old or esoteric on this particular platform.
People who want an a la carte movie experience
Let’s say you don’t really care about television. You’re a movie buff. But to access all the new movies you want to watch, you have to subscribe monthly to some combination of HBO, Disney, Netflix and other streaming services. You might want to pull out your calculator and consider whether it’s worth it to just buy or rent movies, one at a time, from AMC, rather than trying to search for the latest release on a bunch of different streaming services you never use. You can already rent or buy a lot of movies on Amazon Prime; this is just another option.